Titanic Tragedy


Titanic, the popular film, is being hailed as "unsinkable" - as the original Titanic ship was. Yet most of the true heroism and chivalry of that tragedy remains buried beneath the North Atlantic ocean.

James Cameron's epic three hour film Titanic has grossed an unprecedented one Billion dollars and music stores report that their number one selling disc is the soundtrack of the movie. Titanic is also the first film to equal the 11 Academy Awards record of Ben Hur, (although it did not win the best actor and actress awards and today there are far more categories of awards than in 1959).

Cameron's Titanic is technically brilliant. It has painstakingly ensured accuracy on clothing fashions, carpet designs and woodworkings abroad the luxury liner. The film captures and communicates the doomed majesty of the largest and most glamorous passenger ship ever launched. Unfortunately, the most expensive film ever made (it cost over $200 million) utterly fails to communicate the deeper spiritual significance of the tragedy. Most of the incidents of heroism and chivalry abroad the Titanic were inexplicably ignored by the film.

Titanic exploits the distinctions between the first and third class, and completely ignores the second class passengers. In emotionally explosive scenes it portrays the third class passengers locked below decks being prevented from reaching the decks and lifeboats. As each class of passengers had unrestricted access to their own decks and allocated lifeboats those fictitious scenes were impossible. The official enquiries in 1912 by the British Board of Trade and the U.S. Senate Investigation found that allegations that third class passengers were locked below decks were false. In fact 115 men in First Class and 147 men from Second class stood back to make space available for women and children from Third Class and as a result died.

The best historical account ever written on the Titanic disaster, "A Night to Remember" (by Walter Lord 1956 - it has never been out of print since) records many incidents of diligence and courage not covered by Cameron's film. For example: crew members who struggled to rouse and shepherd the third class passengers to the boat decks. Many of these passengers were Swedish and Finnish emigrants who spoke no English. Many Catholic passengers preferred to gather in the dining room to pray the rosary - and would not move. Others stormed the bar and drank themselves into oblivion. Many jammed the corridors trying to drag all their luggage - trunks included - down the passageways up the stairs, to the boat deck! Some got lost in the vast ship. Once on deck, many passengers flatly refused to climb into the small open wooden lifeboats to be launched onto the freezing ocean. Many preferred the bright lights and warmth of the Titanic and went back inside!

For the first hour, the officers could not persuade enough women and children to climb into the first several lifeboats to be launched. With the ship sinking and time running out, many boats were launched only half or three quarters full!

There were only 16 wooden lifeboats, and 4 canvas collapsible lifeboats, on the Titanic. All these boats together could carry a maximum of 1 178 people. On the fateful Sunday night there were 2 207 people on board. Although there had been no lifeboat drills, the crew worked efficiently to quickly equip each boat with lanterns and tins of biscuits, fit in cranks, uncoil the lines, swing out the boats, load and lower them. The crew was disciplined and seemed to sense where they were needed and how to be useful. However, the passengers were not always co-operative and confusion was inevitable.

In the film, Captain Edward Smith silently wanders off, as if in a trance, and plays no active role in the launching of the lifeboats and saving of the passengers. History records him as vigorously active and involved with the radio room, the morse lamp and the distress rockets trying to rouse the ship whose lights they could see 8 to 10 miles away. Cameron chose not to deal with the fact that one ship, the Californian, was close enough to see the sinking ship's lights and their watch counted 8 distress rockets fired. Although Captain Lord of the Californian was repeatedly informed of this he rolled over and went back to sleep!

Far from Captain Smith standing passively on the bridge waiting fatalistically for the waves, survivors testified of the Captain swimming with a small child after the Titanic had sunk.

Women and Children First

The Captain's orders were: "Women and children first!" Second Officer Charles Lightoller, rigorously enforced this order ensuring that no male passengers boarded any of the 8 lifeboats he lowered on the port side (with the exception of Major Peuchen, a Toronto yachtsman, who was requested to fill out the crew on No. 6 which had only one seaman to handle the boat).

On the starboard side, First Officer Murdoch interpreted the order "Women and children first" to allow men to take any empty seats after all women and children who could be persuaded to climb aboard had done so.

Dan Marvin loaded his bride into a lifeboat, blew her a kiss and said "It's all right . . . you go and I'll stay a while."

Adolf Dyker helped Mrs. Dyker across the gunwale with a cheery "I'll see you later."

Dr. Minahan told his wife, "Be brave; no matter what happens, be brave", then he stepped back and joined the other men on the deck.

Mr. Turrell Cavendish said nothing to his wife. Just a kiss . . . a long look . . . another kiss . . . and he disappeared into the crowd.

Mark Fortune, and his son Charles, placed Mrs. Fortune and their three daughters onto a lifeboat and waved goodbye.

"Walter you must come with me!", begged Mrs. Douglas "No," Mr. Douglas replied, turning away, "I must be a gentleman."

Some wives refused to go. Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Meyer felt so self-conscious about arguing in public that they went down to their cabin. There, they decided to part on account of their baby.

Arthur Ryerson had to lay down the law to his wife" "You must obey orders . . . You must go when your turn comes. I'll stay here."

Mr. Lucien Smith ended a very heated argument with his wife saying: "I never expected to ask you to obey, but this is one time you must." They kissed goodbye and as the boat was lowered he called out some final advice "Keep your hands in your pockets, it is very cold weather."

Sometimes force was necessary: Mrs. Emil Taussig was clinging to her husband refusing to go. Two men tore her loose and dropped her overboard into the lowering boat.

Two seamen yanked Mrs. Charlotte Collyer from her husband Harvey. As she was carried, literally kicking and screaming she heard her husband's last words to her, "Go Lottie! For God's sake, be brave and go!"

But no amount of force or persuasion could move Mrs. Hudson Allison to leave her husband. She put her baby Trevor and 3 year old daughter Lorraine into the boat with the nurse but she stayed on deck with her husband.

Mrs. Isidor Strauss also refused to leave her husband. Although everyone tried to persuade her husband, in view of his age to enter the boat, he refused. "I will not go before the other men," he determined. His wife tightened her grasp of his arm, patted it and smiled up at him: "I've always stayed with my husband, so why should I leave him now? We have been living together for many years. Where you go, I go." They sat down together on a pair of deck chairs. Mr Strauss was a member of congress and multi-millionaire banker.

But most of the women entered the boats - wives escorted by their husbands, single ladies by the men who had volunteered to look after them. Thomas Andrews, the charming, dynamic, ship builder worked vigorously to load ladies onto the boats. He was seen and heard helping everywhere: "Ladies you must get in at once! There is not a moment to lose, you cannot pick and choose your boat. Don't hesitate, get in, get in!" One lady suddenly cried out "I've forgotten Jack's photograph and must get it." Everyone protested, but she darted below and soon reappeared with the prized picture and was rushed into the boat.

What people chose to take with them was quite revealing. Adolf Dyker handed his wife a satchel with two gold watches, two diamond rings, a sapphire necklace and 200 Swedish crowns. Edith Russell carried her musical toy pig. Stewart Collett placed his Bible in his pocket, Lawrence Beesley stuffed his jacket pockets with books. Norman Chambers pocketed a revolver and a compass. Steward Johnson took four oranges. Mrs. Dickson Bishop left behind $11 000 in jewellery, then sent her husband back for her muff. Major Arthur Peuchen left behind $200 000 in bonds, $100 000 in stocks and chose warm clothes instead. The five mail clerks sweated their way up the stairs dragging over 200 mail sacks of correspondence - in the vain hope that the post could be saved!

In the midst of the crisis, some still found time for humour. One man told Mrs. Vera Dick as he fastened a life jacket on her: "Try this on. They're the very latest thing this season. Everyone is wearing them now!"

Colonel Gracie found Fred Wright, the squash pro, and cancelled their 7:30 a.m. squash appointment. At that time the squash court on level F and G was under water.

One man called out to Mrs. White: "When you get back you'll need a pass. You can't get back on without a pass!" To calm the people, bandmaster Wallace Hartley led his seven musicians in playing cheerful music and ultimately the hymn, "Abide with me," right to the end. No member of the band survived.

Steward John Hart struggled to get third class passengers into life jackets and shepherded up the boats. Many still refused to go. As fast as he got them into the boats, they would jump out and go inside where it was warm.

One third class passenger, Daniel Buckley, disguised himself as a woman and succeeded in getting into a boat. One male teenager was discovered by Fifth Officer Lowe hiding in one of the life boats. Lowe drew his gun ordering the boy out. When the stowaway started crying, Lowe told him to be a man. That seemed to work because the boy then climbed out and gave his place to a woman. Then, as a wave of men tried to rush the boat, Lowe fired three warning shots to keep them back. "Stand back! Stand back! It's women and children first!" Purser McElroy also had to fire warning shots and drag third class men out of boats to make room for women.

Others were not so frantic. Rev. Robert Bateman helped his sister-in-law, Mrs. Ada Balls into a boat. His last words to her were: "If I don't meet you again in this world, I will in the next."

One of the wealthiest multi-millionaire bankers on the ship, Benjamin Guggenheim, worked tirelessly to help the ladies onto the lifeboats, then sent a last message to his wife: "Tell my wife I've done my best in doing my duty." He then went back to his cabin, dressed up in his evening clothes, with top hat, and declared that he was "prepared to go down like a gentleman!"

Another famous wealthy passenger, Colonel John Astor, placed his wife on a boat and stepped back into the crowd. When Arthur Ryerson noticed that his French maid, Victorine, had no lifevest he stripped off his own and buckled it on her. Then he placed his wife, son and their maid on the lifeboat. He remained on the Titanic.

When the last boat was being loaded, Miss Edith Evans gave up her seat to Mrs. Brown: "You go . . . You have children waiting at home." Edith Evans went down with the ship.

After the last boat had been launched, a curious calm came over the Titanic. Captain Edward Smith walked around telling his crew: "Well, boys, you've done your duty. Now every man for himself."

Some passengers prayed with Rev. Thomas Byles. The band played "Abide With Me." Wireless Operator Phillips continued to try to raise the Californian (whose wireless had been switched off after 11 p.m.), which was within sight, or any other vessel in the vicinity. The famous evangelical journalist and writer, William Stead, sat reading. The Assistant Surgeon Simpson, Purser McElroy, Assistant Purser Barker and Second Officer Lightoller all shook hands and said, "goodbye." Most passengers stood waiting or quietly paced the boat deck. Some jumped into the water.

Then, with the bow plunging steadily deeper into the water and the stern rising higher out of the water a tremendous cacophony erupted of breaking china and glassware, thuds of furniture, the clatter of sliding deck chairs. The lights went out and everything movable in the ship broke loose in a thundering roar. Twenty nine boilers, 15 000 bottles of beer and wine, 30 000 eggs, 5 grand pianos and much more tumbled and crashed as the Titanic broke in half and disappeared beneath the waves.

Thirty men who had remained with the ship managed to swim to the two collapsible boats that had floated off the sinking boat deck, A was swamped and B was upside down. As they balanced precariously on or around the keel, one seaman asked "Don't the rest of you think we ought to pray? " Everyone agreed. They prayed the Lord's Prayer out loud together, in chorus.

Of the about 1 600 people who went down on the Titanic 30 made it onto the capsized collapsible B and 13 others were picked up by other boats. Eight managed to reach boat 4, and boat B (a collapsible) hauled in one more. Boat 14 under Fifth Officer Lowe, rowed back and rescued four more survivors from the water.

The Titanic collided with the iceberg at 11.40 p.m. on Sunday 14 April 1912. Orders were given to uncover the lifeboats, muster the crew and passengers at 12.05 am on Monday 15 April. The first boat was lowered at 12.45 a.m. The last boat was lowered at 2.05 a.m. The ship sunk beneath the sea at 2.20 a.m. The Carpathia which had raced at top speed from 58 miles away arrived at 4.10 a.m. and began picking up survivors. The Californian which was just over 10 miles away only responded to the disaster at 5.45 a.m. when their wireless radio operator woke up and tuned in to what had happened during the night.

The official British statistics given in the House of Commons were 1 503 passengers and crew "not saved" and 703 "saved." This broke down to 1 347 men, 103 women and 53 children died in the Titanic disaster. 651 people were lowered into the lifeboats, 705 survivors were picked up by the Carpathia (therefore 54 who went into the water were saved).

A Turning Point in History

The sinking of the Titanic marked a monumental watershed in human history. She was the floating embodiment of the new age of scientific optimisim. "Bigger! Better! Faster!" Many claimed that the Titanic was yet another proof of the evolutionary ascent of man - "salvation through technology." Man had finally conquered nature and was impenetrable to natural and supernatural forces - "a modern incarnation of the Tower of Babel!" The stunning arrogance of the age was epitomised by the frequent boasts of Titanic's indestructability by builders and promoters: "Not even God could sink this ship!"

It is difficult for us to appreciate just how great an impact this disaster had. There are really no modern comparisons. In less than 3 hours the dreams and confidence of an entire generation sank with the great ocean liner. The human drama of the Titanic was to forshadow the horrors of the most terror ridden century with the greatest death tolls in history. The Titanic marked the end of a general feeling of over confidence. Never again would people be quite so sure of themselves. For the Titanic "man's greatest engineering achievement" - to go down the first time it sailed was a devastating blow. If this supreme achievement was so terribly fragile - what about everything else? If wealth meant so little on this cold April night, what value should we attach to it the rest of the time? It marked the beginning of a new and uneasy era of doubt and disillusionament.

Life is uncertain. The future is unknowable. The unthinkable is possible.

On another level, in the decades that followed, the effect of the sinking of the Titanic was to save more lives than had been lost on that dark, cold April night. Never again would men fling a ship at top speed hell bent through an ice field, heedless of warnings. From now on Atlantic ships took ice warnings seriously. 24 hour radio operations on board passenger ships became a thing of the past. It was also the last time that a liner put out to sea without sufficient lifeboats for everybody on board. However, all that would have been of little consolation at the time.

The sea, like the air, is a dangerous and powerful medium for travel. Time and again it has shown its disrespect for the best efforts of men. The largest, most invincible ship yet built had been defeated by an iceberg. The man-made had been sunk by the God-made.

Yet, while the Titanic before 14 April 1912 symbolised elegance, invincibility, unsinkability and arrogance; after the sinking it became a symbol of duty, chivalry and faith. Amidst the widespread shock and bereavement, people world wide were inspired by the many profoundly moving examples of courage and self-sacrifice of those men who faithfully honoured the command: "Women and children first." With few exceptions, most of Titanic's men willingly gave up their seats on lifeboats for others. Many husbands and fathers put their wives and children on to the lifeboats, looked into their eyes, whispered some last words and waved goodbye - with the full realisation that they would never see them again. They exemplified the teachings of Jesus Christ in John 15:13: "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."

Chivalry, Feminism and Barbarism

Tragically, Cameron's film minimises and ignores the incredible Christian courage and self-sacrifice of many men who went down with the Titanic. By focusing on a fictional, and far fetched, love relationship of a First Class lady with a young artist in steerage, the film has sidelined the real heros of the Titanic. Even more seriously, the film failed to communicate what motivated so many men to give their lives so that others could live. For every women who died on the Titanic, 13 men died.

In recent years the Titanic's record as the worst peacetime, maritime disaster has been beaten - by a horrific ferry sinking in the Philippines in 1987. Over 4 000 people - mostly women and children - died in that disaster Unlike the Titanic, most of the survivors of this Philippines disaster were men. Similarly, when the ferry Estonia sank in the Baltic sea most of the survivors were men. When questioned why they hadn't helped the women and children to be saved, survivors were quoted as saying! "Hey, its survival of the fittest"; "It was every man for himself" and "If women want equality so much - they've got it!"

Again, in 1996, a boat sank off the shores of Indonesia. Like the Titanic, the ship was inadequately equipped with lifeboats. Unlike the Titanic, the men received preferential lifeboat treatment ahead of women and children. Women died that men should live! In fact, feminists and suffragettes of 1912 actually argued that the Titanic women were wrong to have accepted seats on the boats from the men. To them the philosophy of men being protectors and defenders of women was offensive and an obstacle to their cause. "Boats or Votes?" was the title of one prominent newspaper article.

In an essay in the April 27, 1998 edition of Time, entitled "The Titanic Riddle", the writer asks the question: "Why women? . . . is not grouping women with children a raging anachronism? . . . patronising and demeaning to women . . . 'Women and children first' attributes to women the same pitiable dependence and moral simplicity we find in five year olds . . . But in this day of the most extensive societal restructuring to grant women equality in education, in employment, in government, in athletics, in citizenship . . . what entitles women to the privileges - and reduces them to the status - of children?"

The answer is found in the Bible: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her . . . ." Ephesians 5:25. "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps." 1 Peter 2:21

For nearly 2 000 years this principle has guided Christian civilization. The groom dies for the bride. The strong suffers for the weak. The highest expression of love is to give your life for another. This is the true message of the Titanic.

The US president's wife Nellie Taft mounted a national campaign to raise funds for a monument that would be inscribed: "To the brave men who gave their lives that women and children might be saved." That monument was dedicated by the First Lady in Washington DC ". . . in gratitude to the chivalry of American manhood."

No doubt such a message is too uncomfortable at the end of the 20th Century, when abortion targets preborn babies, pornography exploits women for profit, when cowardice is the norm and when even draft dodgers can be made president and send women into combat.

Facing up to The Inevitability of Death

Life is short and uncertain. According to the designer of the Titanic, whereas decorations were discussed for many hours, the lifeboats were only discussed for "five or ten minutes!" It is an amazing thing that so often we give most of our time and attention to the trivial and we give so little attention to what is most important. When they set sail very few of the people on the Titanic could have realised how little time they had. We should set our priorities in the light of eternity and live our lives as those who know that one day we must stand before Almighty God and give an account.

There is nothing more certain than death and nothing as uncertain as the time of dying. We should therefore be prepared at all times for that which may come at any time. The Lord Jesus taught of a rich man who was proud and self satisfied with his achievements and plans to build bigger barns. "And I'll say to myself, 'You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink and be merry! But God said to him, 'You fool! This very nigh your life will be demanded of you' . . . This will be how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God . . . life if more than food, and the body more than clothes . . . seek His kingdom and these things will be given to you as well." Luke 12:19-31.

The Lord described this rich man as a fool because he was unprepared for death. Self centred, purposeless, obsessed with his possessions, prosperity and pleasures he was not prepared for eternity. If you are not prepared to die then you are not free to truly live. As Matthew Henry advised. "It ought to be our business everyday to prepare for our last day." George Whitefield declared: "Take care of your life and God will take care of your death."

At death we leave behind all that we have and we take with us all that we are. On the Day of Judgement, in the light of eternity, will any of regret praying to much? Or sacrificing too much for God's Kingdom? Being too generous? Too forgiving? To evangelistic? If you knew that you were to die next year - what would you do differently this year?

Do you know that your sins are forgiven and do you have a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour? If not, please do write to us or fax, or e-mail, requesting a complimentary copy of the excellent booklet "Ultimate Questions." It is free to anyone who requests it - with no obligations or questions asked.

Rev. Peter Hammond


A Night to Remember, Walter Lord, Penguin, 1956.
Titanic, Leo Merriott, PRC, 1997.

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